The Creative Writing Process: Part 1

Talking with people, I can rarely keep myself from discussing books and literature. Sometimes, the person will say s/he would like to write something, that there’s been an idea brewing in her/his head for a while, just wanting to get on paper. So, I ask “Why not? Why haven’t you written it yet?” Aside from the all too common response of not having the time, the other typical answers are that s/he doesn’t know how to start, writer’s block when confronting the page, or disliking what comes out on the page. I think that part of the problem is that there are many misconceptions about how one goes about writing a novel and what one can expect to encounter in the process. Thus, this series of posts will be dedicated to examining the process of writing from beginning to end. Each and every aspect that I can think of will be covered though if I leave out an aspect of writing that you have questions about, leave a post and I will write on it. To begin, I think I’ll start with the preconceived notions I came to writing with and the realities I found once I started hammering out words.

I read everything I could from the moment I learned how to read. Words have always been quasi-mystical things in my mind. They hold incredible power. Just think about it: words, just squiggles and angles on a piece of paper, can make you bristle with excitement, cringe with terror, or cry from empathy. Words hold immense power and when reading a novel, at least a good one, we flow with them. The novel, like an animal, looks whole, complete, one organic being that fits perfectly together and could not be any other way. We don’t quite see between the words, don’t notice that, taken alone, the words fail to hold the same sway that they do when in context with all the others that make the novel. However, the author had to pick each one of these words and put it down. Despite its veneer of unbroken liquidity, the writing process is a staccato process. In other words, writing is done one word at a time, one after the other, like music. Books do not come fully formed but in pieces. Just because one has an idea, that doesn’t mean that it will simply materialize on the page. This was something I learned over a long while. Just because the idea is there, doesn’t mean it will look the way you intended it once it gets on the page and this is due to words and the way they shape and constrain ideas. Each word has to contribute to the novel, each one must do something for the character development, atmosphere, or plot. In other words, a writer does not sit down at his or her machine and suddenly give birth to a fully formed piece of writing. It is true that on the best of days, one may find oneself in a state of, “flow,” in which one simply spills words on the page, but often, there is a word by word battle to find just the right phrase or just the write rhythm to a piece of dialogue. Writing has sort of a mystical aura around it similar to a conjuring act in which the writer calls forth ideas and the words just assemble themselves. This isn’t the case at all. It is an arduous, tedious process that sometimes moves at a glacial pace as a certain word that you feel needs to be in the work alludes your grasp like a White Whale. Essentially, writing is hard work but it is, luckily, the type of work that if you’re willing to keep at it, you will be rewarded by the feeling that you’re accomplishing something. However, let’s say you do get all your ideas down, with all your words picked out and lines up. Does that mean you’ve done it? You’ve managed to attain the summit? Not quite.

Another very important thing that comes with your first experience with writing is that once you’ve finished and put the last word in, you will realize what you’ve written kind of sucks. At least you’d better be thinking that what you have in front of you sucks or else you’re not learning one of the most important things about this process and that is that it’s all about evolution. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and he is absolutely right. When I went back and read sections of my novel, I felt awful about myself. I thought, “I mustn’t have any talent. Only a hack could write this poorly.” Thankfully, that harsh criticism never really went away and dogged me throughout the entire writing of the book. But what I realized was that it was alright that my first draft sucked because it was just a first draft. No one will see your first draft. It is a for-your-eyes-only playground where you can put in whatever wacky, contrived, or just plain crappy stuff you want because in the second draft all of that will go away as your pare it down to what works and what will make the story shine. Still, the fear will harangue you as it did me. You will feel that you are wasting your time on writing and that you would be better off learning how to salsa dance. But don’t give up because it’s just a first draft! It’s your right, in fact your obligation, to put everything down that comes into your head no matter how terrible it is and there’s a good reason for that. Painters have paint, sculptors have stone, chemists have chemicals, biologists have cells, and so on. The writer though has nothing. The writers starts off with only an idea and a head filled with words. In a way, we take on the responsibility of a god who is creating an entire world ex nihilo. Every other group can just shape and tinker with what is at hand while we must make our own material: the first draft. Once you realize the enormity of that and that the first draft is akin to a block of marble, you will learn to accept the terrible, effusive prose, the poor dialogue, the tortuous sentence structures and see it instead as just a story in the raw that you will mold on the second, third, even fourth go-around. It may be difficult to accept, especially if you’re a perfectionist like me, that your first draft won’t be a diamond of literature but learning to look forward to when it will be, once you go back and revise, will give you hope to keep going and to put pour your mind into your work.

Putting one’s soul into a piece of writing is fine but chaos without any kind of control is just that: chaos. Writing needs to be a sort of controlled chaos, an artfully executed act of insanity. Before writing my novel, I wrote short stories as practice and I didn’t bother with outlines or treatments. I trusted my instincts to get me where I needed to go. However, I had read in a writing magazine about the usefulness of outlining and planning so I gave it a try on one of my short stories which actually serves as an extension of my novel’s universe, more on that later though. In any case, I found that, prior to what I had been doing, the outline served as something very helpful. I had shied away from outlines mostly because I was afraid that by making an outline, I would make the story feel artificial, that readers would read it and feel that I was not being spontaneous and I was somehow being dishonest. To the contrary, the outline proved to be extremely profitable for creativity and making what would have been a sprawling jumble into a coherent picture that I could work off of. Even doing just a treatment (a fairly short summary of major plot points and characters) of your idea, may help you develop new ideas at an incredible pace as you don’t have to worry about finding the right words, just the skeletal ideas you will build the meat of your novel around. However, I learned something else: don’t be afraid to stray from the outline. Like the first draft, the outline is raw material for you to work with and to act as a guide. However if something doesn’t work or you want to take your story in a new direction, try it. Keep experimenting till you find the path you want to walk down. Then again, some people may find that the outline is only a distraction and that just diving in and seeing what can be dug up is the way to go. If you’re one of these people and this works for you, then stick to it though if you’re undecided or haven’t given the outline method a try, do so and see what comes of it. Sometimes a lot may come, yet it’s no good if it gets lost which brings me to a bit of practical advise.

Back up your data. The short story I had made a draft for, and that explained part of the origins of the novel, was lost when my motherboard shorted out. It was complete and was awaiting revision when it was wiped out. I never thought that this could happen and so didn’t store a copy in a second location. All that work was lost. So learn to expect the unexpected and protect your work like it was your child, which isn’t far from the truth in a way. But in any case, if you’re using a computer, make back up copies on multiple devices. Thumb drives don’t cost that much you know. If you’re doing it the classical way, with a pen or typewriter, make photocopies and store them somewhere safe. You do not want to put weeks or months of work into something only to have a freak accident erase it all.

These are just a few of the ideas I had about the craft of writing coming into it and what I found when I actually got down to work. I’m sure there are more preconceived notions out there and if there are, leave a post. Let’s see how many we can come up with. But the most important thing is that this is a learning process and the more you do it, the more you will come to appreciate writing as something both difficult and sometimes brutal, yet nuanced and uplifting. No matter what, if you want to write, go for it and don’t stop till you’ve put that last word down.

Next time, I’ll look at the earliest stage of writing: the idea stage and how to spot ideas worth pursuing and those that need more time to develop.

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